Casque d'Or Review
Jacques Becker directed only a short run of films, but as with the similarly brief careers of Preston Sturges or producer Val Lewton, his work was frequently revolutionary. StudioCanal is releasing several of those titles this month and Casque d’Or is one of the very best.
Set during France’s Belle Époque, the “beautiful era”, around the turn of the last century, the story is loosely based on “Apache”, the criminal underworld subculture. The film is at once a period piece and a gangster movie, defined by a poetically tragic romance. Serge Reggiani plays Manda, recently released from jail and determined to go straight until he unwisely falls in love with Maria (Simone Signoret) and has to duel her gangster lover, Roland. Manda accidentally kill him, making him and his skills vulnerable to gang leader Lece (Claude Dauphin).
Reggiani’s Manda is the classic wandering hero. He’s a fantastic character, convincing as the nice guy who nevertheless should not be messed with. He could have just kept wandering but Maria is hard to ignore. The “blonde helmet” of the title, she is a beautiful force of nature; a gangster’s moll who refuses to be curtailed. Simone Signoret’s BAFTA winning performance is breathtaking and it makes for a fascinating comparison with her icy, sullen role in Diabolique. Her eyes rarely stop smiling. The first acts of the film are deceptively simple and Signoret is suitably playful and witty, but as the story takes a darker turn, she is even more convincing. Similar plots with a willing or unwilling Femme Fatale have been done many times since, but so often, the importance of the role slips into the background while the men fight over her. Signoret is impossible to ignore and the wonderful narrative, full of misdirection, wouldn’t want to anyway.
The plot of Casque d’Or is deceptively simple, which is just what Becker was brilliant at. You barely notice the coils of the plot tightening and the tonal shifts are handled with aplomb. Much of that execution is at the behest of Dauphin’s Lece, a cool and truly despicable smiling assassin of a villain. For a film that starts in a rather understated fashion, it is very effective at sneaking up on you. It’s evocative and powerful, especially a terrific last act that capitalises on all the tension, building to a crescendo.
The mood of the film is less eccentric than might be expected, including Becker’s own work. Its period setting and myriad characters are reminiscent of Powell and Pressburger’s work. And like those stalwarts of British cinema, the style obfuscates just how clever the direction really is. Becker’s control of what appear to be haphazard scenes is superlative, especially the opening waltz as the camera moves between characters and sets up the plot as much without dialogue as with (the dance features several times, perhaps a nod to the tradition of the time).
Casque d’Or is a wonderful, gripping example of just how much fun French film can be.
This excellent transfer from StudioCanal is faultless. The age of the film gives it noticeable grain, but the sharpness is perfectly judged. Becker’s mise-en-scène is as opulent as it is indulgent, chintzy even, and the detail pops right from the opening titles. The lighting is beautiful, smoky and bright in equal measure. And it’s rarely better than when focused on a close-up of the wonderful Simone Signoret. There is a moment when she wakes up a dozing Serge Reggiani that may remind you of Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
Interview with Professor Ginette Vincendeau (8m)
Professor Vincendeau discusses Jacques Becker’s classical approach and versatility, in particular considering the time the film was made and the shift that French cinema was about to undertake.
Au Coeur des Sentiments: La Lègende de Casque d'Or (32m)
“At the Heart of Emotions: The Legend of Golden Marie” is a thorough collection of contemporary interviews, piecing together a history of the film and its perception. Includes lots of set photographs and poster art.
Interview with Simone Signoret (4m)
Archive footage of a 1970s interview with the wonderful Simone Signoret. She’s warm and open, relating fond memories of working with Jacques Becker.